As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, there has never been a more pressing need for organizations to rethink and reconfigure their businesses for a changed world than now. The Multisectoral HIV Response has also been hit hard by the pandemic, however, the plan is not to derail from the mandate. Covid-19 has been tough on all of us. As a response, we were not prepared for it and were forced to think out of the box. The multisectoral approach ensures continued service provision in the four regions and these are some of the challenges regions are faced with during this pandemic.
The Shiselweni Region
Shiselweni Regional Coordinator (RC), Sharon Neves details some of the challenges the region encountered during this challenging COVID-19 period. “Our daily work includes working with community leaders, volunteers and partners. This includes capacity building which requires us to have meetings, gatherings etc. With covid-19 all that was affected mainly by the lockdown and its requirements on minimizing contact with people and restrictions on movement. We have been forced to work in isolation and use technology such as the Zoom meeting App to communicate, which posed a challenge for us because the constituencies we serve do not have access to this technology,” enlightened the RC. She said uptake of services has been affected mainly because most of these services ( HIV testing, circumcision, trainings, community ART, etc) were done at community level. “Our inability to get to communities has hindered access to these services. At clinic level all efforts and resources have been diverted to the fight against covid-19,” continued Neves.
She mentioned that they are doing their best in collaboration with partners to ensure that people on ART are prioritized so they adhere to treatment without defaulting. One intervention we laud from the Ministry of Health is allowing people on ART to get a 6 months’ supply instead of 3 months, to reduce travelling and unnecessary exposure. She said during this time, there has been an increase in the use of self-testing kits to reduce contact. “I can safely say we are doing our best under the circumstances to ensure that HIV stays on the agenda during covid-19,” asserted the RC.
From the perspective of the Lubombo Regional Coordinator
Lubombo RC, Nomcebo Sifundza says as a region, they were never ready to respond to such a devastating epidemic. She highlighted that Covid-19 has not only affected service delivery but the second wave left the entire country in fear of losing more people, family members, politicians and front liners. “Our Lubombo office and implementing partners have been derailed by the epidemic. During the first wave, the Regional Health and Social Services providers were placed in various response committees, a situation that shifted our focus from HIV service delivery towards Covid-19 response. This resulted in restriction of movement with the buzz word being, “stay at home”, which made service delivery and access difficult for all; both service providers and beneficiaries,” she emphasized.
“Sesitfolana kanjani wonkhe umuntfu asabhace ekhaya?, loosely translated, how do we then get hold of each other when everyone is home. After much confusion and multiple engagements, the Lubombo Health Management team through the Ministry of Health came up with strategies to reach out to relevant stakeholders and beneficiaries, which was mainly through media & online meeting platforms such as Zoom where programs continued in other service areas,” she cherished.
As of the 1st February 2021, the Hhohho region recorded the highest number of COVID-19 cases (6908), followed by Manzini with 6205. With the indiscriminate spread of COVID-19 countrywide, many support groups experienced negative consequences such as job losses, food insecurity, and inability to manage existing medical conditions and maintain preventive measures such as social distancing and personal preventive equipment.
The Hhohho region has not been spared from these adverse effects. Gcina Kunene, the Regional Coordinator (RC) in the Hhhohho region says that job losses and food insecurity are some of the key issues that increase the vulnerability of acquiring HIV, especially women and young girls. He says the tendency is that these groups engage in sexual activities in exchange for food and basic commodities to enhance their lives. “In the series of dialogues that were conducted during the 2020 World AIDS campaign, it transpired that young women and girls were either experiencing or witnessing this ordeal in their communities. If this trend continues unattended programmatically, it will militate against attaining an AIDS-free society by 2022,”highlighted the RC. “It is also worth noting that COVID-19 introduced a new way of doing things, including conducting meetings virtually, however, this innovation has not blended in well with the people we are servicing, especially in the rural communities.
The PLIHV livelihood support program has been partially hindered as the region could not reach out to the different support groups due to the lockdown restrictions. This made monitoring of their projects difficult. However, support group members have been faithfully continuing with their projects, producing different products although they lacked market for their produce,” continued Kunene. He sustained that it is hoped that once restrictions are eased, business will boom. “The gist of this program is not purely business but to assist support group members afford basic commodities for their livelihood, maintaining a healthy diet and adhering to treatment,” concluded Kunene.
Manzini region support groups extend help to ordinary community members
Support groups (SGs) in the Manzini region have taken their selfless deeds outside their membership to also cater for general community members with various needs. This was established during a visit to Sicelimphilo and Sincengimphilo Support Groups at Gundvwini and Nhlambeni respectively.
The SGs who are part of the 7 Manzini region phase 1 groups which benefited from the NERCHA Livelihood grant, have been doing tremendous work despite the adverse effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. The support groups have made it a habit to fork out their hard-earned savings on a monthly basis, to assist community members with basic human needs such as hospital fees and daily meals. Sicelimphilo Support group of Gundvwini under Mtfongwaneni Inkhundla say they contribute E5 each monthly, to cater for the needs of general community members, while Sincengimphilo say they contribute E2 which amounts to a hefty figure since their membership has risen from 58 to 78 members over the past 3 months or so.
The Njelu community of Nhlambeni has found new hope in the support group as they are able to meet their family needs through various projects being undertaken, such as farming, dressmaking, basket weaving, tent and chairs hire as well as cleaning products. A proud Nkambule who is the Regional Coordinator for the Manzini region failed to contain his joy as he heaped praises on the support groups for the positive impact they are making in their communities. “We are encouraged by the positive impact that support groups have made to the lives of members and their communities”, he swanked. Nkambule says of course the Covid-19 pandemic has brought challenges to the operations of SGs, but, as a region they are encouraged by the positive spirit of members who have risen above the situation and soldiered on.
He mentioned that the support of partners is one vehicle that NERCHA rode on in order to achieve this amount of success. He said partners such as ADRA and others paved the way and made it easy to access these communities and extend the necessary help. Nkambule then encouraged communities to ensure that People Living with HIV get the necessary services through the backing of Support Groups.